Amy Levin: A controversial religious tradition in Iran you wouldn’t expect to hear about is brewing in the news: occultism–or at least some relative version of it. The narrative arguably begins in medias res, when one of Ayatollah Ali Khameni’s aides accused allies of president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad of engaging in “occult practices.” The aide specifically targeted Ahmedinajad’s chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, who was blamed for “‘bewitching’ the president with magic spells, of having too much influence over him and of leading a “current of deviation” aimed at destroying the Islamic regime.”
As an effort to divert attention away from the accusations, the president launched an attack on occult practices and “nonconformist ideologies.” While practices of occultism are already subject to fines and jail time of up to seven years in Iran, the acting interior minister, Alireza Afshar, has recently commissioned a non-governmental organization “to identify those engaged in divination and exorcism as well as ‘deviant schools of thought and false Gnosticism.’” So far, as many as 25 men associated with Mashaie have been arrested and charged with involvement in “sorcery and black magic.”
Occult practices like “fortune-telling, divination, and black magic” (see top link) are nothing new in Iran, and were tolerated unless individuals felt that they were subject to victimization or fraud. These practices seem occult-ish, but Afshar later added the term “devil-worshippers” to his blacklist. “Devil-worshipper is the collective term that authorities in Iran often use to refer to underground rock bands and young people dressing unconventionally or “western-style.”
Despite all this recent concern about the occult, the real question is, why are Khameni and Ahmedinajad “unraveling their ties”? (You really should click that link.) While Iran’s Islamic Republic is far too complex to synthesize simply, it seems that the occult debate is more about (surprise!) oil and money than anything else. Ahmedinejad wants control of a corrupt oil ministry partly governed by clerics who he threatens to expose and possibly prosecute. Therefore, the clerics and their allies in the Guardian Council are pushing back through their accusations of black magic.
Regardless of who is or isn’t casting spells, diverting political propaganda, or wearing punk-rock studded belts in the streets of Tehran, what is worth noting is the way particular ideas of religion are mobilized to govern behavior and legislate action. Even if no Iranian government official has ever considered dabbling in witchcraft, Ahmedinajad’s crackdown is a clear indication that any public deviance from the religious norm is worth defending against. Lest we forget, these politicians will tell us what’s normal: good Islam = clergy, bad Islam = crystals. Thus, while in practice religion may be quite nuanced, the social imaginary of “real” religion has very real implications.